The Idea of Prison Abolition by Tommie Shelby • Princeton University Press • 2022 • 231 pages • $30
There is a growing belief on the left that American criminal adjudication is so grossly unjust that its institutions ought to be abolished. Under this line of thinking, police, jails, prisons, and the corporations that enable them form a “prison-industrial complex” (PIC) that must be dismantled in order to bring true justice, particularly for poor people of color, who bear the brunt of PIC injustices. The activists and scholars who call for this radical sociopolitical change call themselves abolitionists, an echo of the activists who worked to end slavery in the United States.
With a century and a half of hindsight, race-based chattel slavery seems self-evidently wrong to most Americans. But in the early years of the republic, slavery was foundational to the economy of the Southern states. Evolving into a status symbol that was woven into the regional culture, it became the most divisive political issue in the nation’s history, and it ultimately led to civil war. After decades of accommodation and compromise, many Americans understood that the United States could not continue to be “half slave and half free.”
However, organized antebellum abolitionists were a small and radical portion of the newly established Republican Party and no more than a fringe movement in most of the country. And even the abolitionists were divided on whether the Constitution was a pro-slavery or anti-slavery document—and, by extension, whether the United States was intrinsically incapable of providing equal freedom to Black people.
In some respects, the abolitionists of today mirror the abolitionists of old: a relatively small, dedicated cadre of activists with a moral conviction that a core institution of the United States is fundamentally immoral and unjust. They work toward a world in which that institution is a memory and widely understood to be a shameful evil. Moreover, today’s abolitionists often point to the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which banned slavery and involuntary servitude “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Such a direct line from chattel slavery to the mass incarceration that today keeps hundreds of thousands of Black Americans in thrall to an often unjust authority gives further heft to the modern abolitionist cause.
While many may reject the modern-day slavery argument about today’s prisons, the post-Civil War practice of “convict leasing” was indeed a partial resurrection of slavery that lasted well into the twentieth century. As journalist Douglas Blackmon chronicled in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, convict leasing exploited Black labor for profit under the guise of criminal justice. White Southern officials passed and local sheriffs—whose positions sometimes directly descended from slave catcher roles—enforced vagrancy and loitering laws that effectively made being Black and unemployed a crime. In return, those law enforcement officials were paid to provide such “criminals” to plantations and corporations that sometimes worked the men to death.
With some notable and scandalous exceptions such as the “kids-for-cash” story that broke in 2008, in which two Pennsylvania judges were found to have taken kickbacks to funnel juveniles into detention centers for lengthy sentences, the quid pro quo corruption is a relic of the past. But too often the difference between injustice yesterday and today is a matter of degree, not kind. American jails and prisons remain deeply unjust institutions for myriad reasons, and many of the problems have metastasized over the past several decades as millions of Americans cycled through correctional systems.
The rate of incarceration in the United States outpaces almost every other country in the world and is by far the highest among democratic countries. A disproportionate number of the incarcerated are Black and Hispanic men, supporting the abolitionist claim that the PIC continues to reinforce racial hierarchies. Moreover, the conditions in many American jails and prisons are inexcusable, with inmates subject to physical violence and sexual abuse from guards and other inmates, higher risk of infectious disease than the general public—including debilitating chronic illnesses and HIV—and sometimes shockingly unsanitary conditions that further endanger their health and well-being. That these conditions exist in facilities in a wealthy and free society is indeed a moral stain on the country, and modern-day abolitionists are wholly justified in calling for radical change.
But the need for radical change in the U.S. system doesn’t necessarily mean prisons qua prisons are inherently unjust, as abolitionists allege. Radical change could mean a more humane prison system, one with far fewer inmates, and a greater focus on rehabilitation and personal improvement. Yet abolitionists have reached the point where “reform” is not good enough, sometimes arguing, “You can’t reform this!”
Whether abolition is the best framework to undo mass incarceration in the United States is not only a strategic political matter, but a philosophical and moral one. The all-or-nothing rejection of reform ought to be taken seriously rather than dismissed out of hand. Abolition and its aims should be examined critically to better understand both what is feasible and whether prison abolition is ultimately desirable.
Harvard philosophy and African American studies professor Tommie Shelby has written a book that takes on prison abolition through an expressly philosophical lens. In The Idea of Prison Abolition, Shelby describes himself as “part of the black radical tradition,” but he laments the general reticence to criticize from the left the ideas, allies, and heroes who are on the left. To that end, Shelby puts forth a thoughtful and thorough critique of prison abolitionist thought, specifically the work of Angela Y. Davis, who has been writing about prisons, capitalism, and racism for decades. Shelby’s analysis does not endorse the abolitionist vision of a prison-less society: “I continue to believe that incarceration has legitimate and socially necessary uses, including as punishment, and so prisons are not inherently unjust.” Even so, he does emphasize abolitionists’ immense contribution to his own understanding of crime and punishment in the United States.
Shelby’s approach has benefits and limitations. On the plus side, the abolitionists’ moral certitude and rejection of reform provide a system ripe for philosophical analysis. Another benefit to Shelby’s approach is that it emphasizes the necessary reconsideration of the penal system that the abolitionist worldview demands. Most Americans probably take prisons for granted, as naturally occurring institutions reserved for those who break society’s rules. Phrases like “don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time” and, far more grotesquely, jokes about dropping the soap in the shower reflect a collective acknowledgement and public acceptance of the awfulness of prisons and life inside. Indeed, that the conditions of American jails and prisons can be so appalling presents a challenge to reformers to convince others these institutions can ever be just.
The widespread callousness and indifference toward the incarcerated have created a political environment in which prisoners are effectively out of sight and out of mind, so that the systems and facilities in which they live escape strong public scrutiny. Taking abolition seriously, as Shelby does, requires a reckoning with what prisons do and what that means for society. While Shelby is not convinced a prison-less world is desirable, let alone morally required, he explores radical alternatives to the current system that would dramatically reduce the number of people in prison.
Among the drawbacks to Shelby’s philosophical approach is the impossibility of cabining the argument to philosophy without it bleeding into policy details. To be sure, Shelby did his homework on criminal and penal policies, and he does a commendable job of capturing and contextualizing the relevant information. No book can cover every aspect of a topic like this and so this is mostly a limitation of the style, not a failure of the author. Invariably, however, there will be some overgeneralizations that are not necessarily wrong but may mislead the reader about a topic’s relevance to the broader policy space.
For example, Shelby did not mention that less than 10 percent of jail and prison inmates are housed in privately run facilities. This omission, which admittedly is not necessary to make his argument, may implicitly overstate their importance in a chapter entirely concerned with profit-seeking in the PIC. Shelby’s analysis goes well beyond private prisons, and he masterfully dissects Davis’s condemnation of any for-profit participation in prison administration, particularly given the American economic reality that food, clothing, and medical supplies will mostly come from private sources. Indeed, his conclusion on the potential of nonprofit prisons may surprise readers. But given the widespread and mistaken belief that private prisons are largely to blame for the problems in the penal system, contextualizing the scope of the for-profit prison problem would have strengthened his analysis. That said, Shelby is spot on when noting the actors within the public sector (e.g., prison guard unions) have a strong interest in protecting the PIC even absent corporate capitalism.
The other limitation of Shelby’s philosophical approach is that it will limit the book’s potential audience. Unlike Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy or Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, which were bestsellers in part because of powerful narratives geared to the wider public, The Idea of Prison Abolition is a detailed first-principles argument, as one might reasonably expect from a university press. A reader does not need a degree in philosophy to enjoy it—the book is very well written, compelling, and not nearly so formal as a conference white paper—but breaking down components of a position or argument is typically not appealing to a mass audience.
Of course, the abolitionist program involves far more than just closing prisons. Among other things, it seeks to rectify the socioeconomic disparities and reverse the severe disadvantages that many inmates faced before they were incarcerated. According to abolitionist writers like Davis, removing the myriad material barriers to well-being—including housing and food insecurity—and improving access to health care and mental health services, combined with restorative justice practices, would eliminate the need for prisons. In short, a functional socialism with robust community organization and conflict resolution would obviate aggressive criminal enforcement and incarceration. Shelby tackles these claims about prison obsolescence head on but ultimately finds them unconvincing. These material and health improvements would likely reduce the incidence of crime—perhaps drastically—but the leap from ending mass incarceration to ending serious crime entirely is borne out neither by experience nor available data. Moreover, while lauding the aims and practices of restorative justice, Shelby writes that not everyone who is asked to forgive will do so or will be satisfied with non-carceral alternatives. Similarly, some offenders will likely not be deterred or inhibited from reoffending without eventual incarceration.
Shelby raises an interesting question with this line of thinking: Why is abolition the focus, rather than the broader societal change that would supposedly end the need for prisons? Even if one isn’t coming from a Marxist perspective—Shelby does, I do not—most of the ameliorative aims of abolitionists are good policy goals in any case. The means of creating economic security and better access to health care will vary depending on ideology and politics, but certainly improving material and life quality outcomes for the poor should be part of a broader medium- to long-term method for crime prevention.
This distinction is important, Shelby argues, because it may confuse or obstruct what the core project of abolitionists is. He writes:
What are the principles of justice that we ought to realize, and which feasible forms of social life would satisfy these principles? If it turns out (as I think it does) that prisons are not inherently unjust and may be socially necessary even in a just social order, then the theory fails to identify what our most basic political aims ought to be. Prison abolition would then be an admirable but misdirected movement. Moreover, by using this approach—prison as reliable proxy for systemic injustice—we risk alienating potential allies in the struggle for structural transformation by creating polarizing disagreements over issues that are not fundamentally at stake…. [I]f the existence of prisons is not a reliable sign of structural injustice (because, say, imprisonment can be an effective and legitimate response to the problem of serious crime), then the debate between prison reformers and abolitionists is a red herring and a distraction from what could be a more basic common objective.
One of those objectives would be abolishing the ghetto. Whereas prisons can serve a constructive and just purpose as a response to violent crime, poor racial ghettos that tend to be feeders into them do not. It makes sense that Shelby, who is also the author of Dark Ghettos: Injustice, Dissent, and Reform, would circle back to this topic in his critique of prison abolition.
In The Idea of Prison Abolition, Shelby questions whether society can meaningfully reduce serious violent crime while ghettos still exist. This is a very serious question to answer when one considers that so many American cities have poor Black sections of de facto segregation. Residents of these areas usually have lower job prospects than people in other parts of the city, they—and particularly their young men—are policed differently than white cross-town neighbors, their children typically have fewer educational opportunities, and they tend to have less economic and political power to remedy any of these problems. Prisons draw disproportionally from these neighborhoods, and it is back to these enclaves of high unemployment that the formerly incarcerated return to look for work and rejoin society. The ghetto is where U.S. society’s continuing injustices against Black Americans are most acute, and these neighborhoods’ cyclical relationships with prisons and the PIC exacerbate the problems endemic to ghetto life.
Whether abolitionists focus on prisons or ghettos or something else is ultimately a political question for them to decide. Shelby has provided a sharp and sympathetic critique of the abolitionist program on its own terms. While the book cannot be comprehensive given the ever-growing literature on abolition, it boldly contributes to the ongoing conversation about the future of prisons and criminal adjudication in the United States. Regardless of where one falls on the reformer-abolitionist spectrum, it is clear that addressing the larger societal problems within our country must be part of any viable path toward true justice.